The recent release of J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive seems to have kicked up a conflict that seems to have less to do with the music itself than it does hip-hop fans themselves, pitting dedicated fans vs. apathetic (but vocal) non-fans. Critics of Cole’s have either maligned the album itself or dismissed it altogether based on the opinion that J. Cole’s music is, to put it plainly, boring. While I have yet to hear anyone say he isn’t talented at the actual science of rapping, any student of hip-hop music can tell you that rapping your ass off doesn’t automatically making compelling music. In what almost seem like a snub to this critical line of thinking, Cole went from the last album, Born Sinner, into this one not only producing the majority of the album himself, but welcoming zero guest features. While Cole’s formula is obviously successful (more on what that has to do with anything later), critics, based on their own listening experiences, have a field day referring to his music as “audio Ambien” or “lyrical Lunesta” or dubbing him “Young Eeyore”. But making fun of rappers is always fun until the stans get involved.
It would be highly inaccurate to call everyone who enjoyed 2014 Forest Hills Drive a stan. Many people who weren’t even fans of Cole at all before now seem to enjoy it. However, it’s the apathy toward his music that seems to spark the interest of J. Cole stans, who have come up with the most curious of arguments in response to people who don’t care for and/or about his music:
The idea that you may not be smart enough to understand the lyrics of one Jermaine Lamarr Cole.
Now, we’ve seen this odd behavior before in standom, most notably from the stans of Lupe Fiasco, who assumed that anyone who didn’t care for “Kick, Push” just thought the song was about skateboarding and was unable to comprehend the deep, philosophical meaning behind it. A major part of the stan agenda is finding a way to make anyone who doesn’t like what they stan for look like some kind of bumbling idiot, or worse, a hater. With Cole, there’s an assumption that the St. John’s graduate is kicking rhymes so cerebral, you have to be on a higher plane of understanding to appreciate them. This is used to combat the idea that Cole’s music is boring and/or that he himself is simply not that interesting a persona to draw the listener in. I’m a person who seeks out hip-hop, new and old, on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that nothing Cole is talking about even comes close to being too deep for comprehension by your average Joe on the scale of conscious rap music (a category I wouldn’t even place Cole into). Not to say that the music is of a lesser value, but it’s not what stans make it out to be.
I myself, in case you haven’t gathered at this point, am not a Cole fan, but “fan” to me is a strong word. As a self-styled critic, I try not to be blinded by adoration for artists whose work I like so that I can expect the most out of them each time around and so that my opinion can be trusted. So I would say that I’m a “fan” of very few artists. J. Cole doesn’t bother me, but he also doesn’t interest me as an MC. Skills aside, his story doesn’t draw me in and his execution isn’t something I’m interested in hearing for more than a feature or single. That’s a personal taste thing, I know. I don’t think he’s a bad rapper or (and this is most important to me) that he’s bad for the culture. He’s actually very good for hip-hop…stanning isn’t.